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Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection.

Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, And the Origins of Human Dissection

By Katharine Park

New York: Zone Books, 2006

The frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's 1543 De humani corporis fabrica is one of the most celebrated and frequently discussed images in the history of anatomy. Vesalius's book is usually seen as inaugurating the sixteenth-century revolution in dissection that propelled anatomy into its central place in medical knowledge. The frontispiece, which features Vesalius dissecting a cadaver, is crowded with onlookers who include not only the anatomist's contemporaries, but also such illustrious predecessors as Aristotle and Galen. The image captures Vesalius's radical departure from established procedure. Rather than representing the anatomical process as divided among sector, ostensor, and lector of anatomy, as it traditionally was, Vesalius embodies all three functions; he himself performs the acts of cutting, demonstrating, and explaining bodily structures. Conventional interpretations of the woodcut have made it into an icon representing a pivotal moment in the history of anatomy. But what has usually been eclipsed is the fact that the cadaver lying at the center of the frontispiece is female.

Katharine Park's important new book makes the gender and identity of the corpse Vesalius dissects the foundational moment of her study. Public dissections in the sixteenth century were usually medical; the partitioning and display of the body was used to teach and to further scientific knowledge. The gender of the body was relatively unimportant in this context because anatomy stressed the generic--what all bodies shared, not the features that made them distinct. Academic anatomies, which typically used the bodies of criminals as their subjects, worked to obliterate the identity of the cadaver. The criminal was already socially abject, and dissection eradicated the marks of social identity even further, first by cutting the body into parts, and then by turning these parts into nonproprietary organs and structures.

Park's book seeks to reverse this process of erasure. In order to accommodate gender, her first move is to enlarge the practice of dissection beyond the more academically oriented study of anatomy. She resituates anatomical dissection within a network of related practices: the embalming of the corpse in funerary custom, the preservation of a saint's body and the cult of relics, autopsies performed for forensic purposes, and, perhaps most interesting of all, the controversial performing of caesarean section. By positioning dissection within social networks, within kinship relations, and within the frameworks of religious beliefs, Park aims to restore "cultural coherence" to these practices. Because she locates her study in a historical sweep from the late thirteenth century to the mid-sixteenth century, Park also destabilizes the familiar narrative of the Vesalian anatomical revolution. This historical scope contextualizes medical anatomy within a much longer tradition, and it renders scientific curiosity one mode among others of exploring human interiority. Secrets of Women stands out among the many books on anatomy that have appeared in the past two decades. Its ability to name and identify the bodies that might otherwise disappear into the neutrality of the anatomical model and its capacity to analyze the undergirding ideologies through the lens of gender make it a vital addition to the field of anatomical research.

Park's account is richly textured. Anecdotes and narratives culled from Italian, often Florentine, archives, a close analysis of anatomical treatises, and an abundant array of images serve to ground her arguments in the specificities of time and place. Four of the five chapters employ a case history about the dissection of a woman's body, and two of these chapters focus on saints or visionaries. The conjunction of the discourses of sanctification and autopsy is one of the most fascinating aspects of this book: how does the body encode somatic signs of holiness, and how do the practices of dissection reveal them to ecclesiastical authority? Central to Secrets of Women is the idea that gender was elided in academic dissection, and that "women's secrets" figured the mystery of human interiority that lay at the heart, so to speak, of the anatomical quest. The Galenic foundation of Western medicine took the male body as generic, while female bodies were used for the knowledge that they could supply about women's sexual and reproductive organs. That the uterus was hidden inside the body and could be known only through dissection gave this organ a special symbolic power, for it came to represent both the origin of life and the enigmatic nature of the body's unknowable inside. Park explores the epistemological idea of secrecy, and her chapter on the anatomical history of women's organs details the assimilation of an oral, experiential, and usually female tradition of understanding women's "secrets" into the writings of learned (male) medical practitioners. Her account of this transition carefully divests itself of the nostalgia that has shaped some feminist analyses of this historical passage. Park recognizes the multiple factors that produced the shift, and she weighs both gains and losses attendant on it.

One of the strongest parts of the book is Park's analysis of maternity and the opening of the pregnant female body. Early modern patriarchal culture needed to regulate female sexuality and reproduction in order to sustain itself, and it is thus inevitable that generation would figure centrally. Because pregnancy earned a stay of execution for a convicted woman, the criminal bodies used for public dissection did not offer much knowledge about the female body's reproductive operations. However, autopsies, sometimes performed to ascertain the cause of death, or a caesarean section, conducted after the mother was deceased, provided information about women's propagative anatomy. Park examines these autopsies not only for what they reveal about medical knowledge but also for what they show us about contemporary ideas on lineage and kinship. The most compelling section of this chapter, "The Mother's Part," is Park's exploration of the narratives positioned at the interface of history and myth, those openings of the maternal body that bookend the Roman Empire: the caesarean delivery of Julius Caesar from his dead mother's womb, and Nero's crazed insistence that his mother, Agrippina, be killed and opened so that he might gaze at the organ that gave him life. These myths, according to Park, took on new resonance in the early modern period, especially as they were retold in relation to the emergent science of anatomy. Park's interest is not to examine the ethical controversies surrounding caesarean birth, although this would have been a welcome addition, but rather to suggest how the early modern reiterations of the myth shaped the new "empire" that emerged from Vesalian anatomical reform.

The final chapter of Park's book returns us to the Vesalian frontispiece. The structure of the book is suspended, for although Vesalius is invoked in the introduction and although the frontispiece is reproduced there, the intervening four chapters defer a full consideration of the image. Chapter 5, "The Empire of Anatomy," is the culminating moment in this revisionary book, and it effectively draws together the various strands of the historical argument Park has been making. She provides a narrative of the criminal woman who was executed and then simultaneously rendered unknowable and immortalized in the service of anatomical history. What little we know with certainty about her Vesalius tells us: the woman was middle-aged and unusually tall, she had given birth previously, she had claimed to be pregnant in order to escape hanging (a form of execution that itself indicated that she was unlikely to have been of noble birth), but that when her uterus was opened, the judgment of the midwives (that she was not pregnant) was confirmed. Park offers a conjectural narrative for the woman's last days, and the effect of humanizing the cadaver allows Park to speculate persuasively about why Vesalius chose a female corpse, particularly given that his understanding of the female reproductive system may be the weakest part of De fabrica. Park's analysis of the frontispiece aligns it both with Christian iconographic tradition (Mantegna's foreshortened Christ, Saint Anthony and the miser's heart) and with Roman myth. She argues that Nero and Caesar serve as intertexts to the Vesalian establishment of an anatomical empire. Vesalius's invocation of the Roman context resonated with Hapsburg mythology, and the dedication of De fabrica to the "divine Charles" supported Vesalius's ultimately successful bid to become an imperial physician in the Hapsburg Empire.

Park's intricate interpretation of the image makes gender not incidental but rather essential to the territorial claims that Vesalius makes about his reformation of anatomical method. Her central points are that imperial dominion has historically depended upon the violent subjugation of female reproduction, and that this foundational moment in the history of anatomy instantiates a cognate relationship between the male anatomist and his female object that would continue to shape the scientific and anatomical gaze. Park's thesis is not an unfamiliar one, for it draws on insights that would be familiar to readers of Foucault and feminist history of science and medicine. What is remarkable about Secrets of Women is the wealth of historical detail that allows Park to situate Vesalius's accomplishment within a gendered framework. Her revisionary analysis of this anatomical icon urges us to reread the history of anatomy differently, paying attention to what has been occluded in the establishment of medical empire. Secrets of Women will certainly change our understanding of Vesalius and the history of anatomy, and its effects are likely to extend far beyond the field.
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Author:Harvey, Elizabeth D.
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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